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Impeachment Inquiry Sends TV News Networks Into Media Scramble

Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper operate in different lanes at CNN. Cooper is the affable primetime newsman; Tapper is the Washington anchor focused on government and the White House. What circumstances might get them to join forces?

The duo held forth at 11 p.m. on CNN for a few nights last week — not the normal offering at that time — to guide viewers through all the news related to the burgeoning impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House into a whistleblower’s complaint that President Trump pressured Ukraine to interfere in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Reaction by the president was also discussed. The “special” hour “is a good wrap up,” says Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and a senior vice president. “It just makes sense to put it all together” at the end of particularly hectic days.

Chaotic news cycles have been the norm during the Trump administration — but hold on to your anchors! More new programs, star analysts and viral moments are likely to erupt as the media scrambles to cover a story that threatens to overwhelm all others in the coming months. An impeachment process could ultimately end without any action taking place — President Bill Clinton survived impeachment in 1998 when he was acquitted of charges by the U.S. Senate — but that won’t keep any of the national TV outlets from covering every last hearing and leaked detail of the current situation.

“I think it will look like the Nixon impeachment or the Clinton impeachment on steroids,” says Mark Feldstein, Richard Eaton chair of broadcast journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

TV news networks have in recent weeks tirelessly covered dozens of candidates striving for the Democratic presidential nomination and mounted ambitious town halls aimed at discussions about climate change. Now a new storm is on the horizon that will usurp any and all other topics for weeks, says Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University and a former CNN Washington bureau chief. “This impeachment inquiry is very bad news if you aren’t among the Democratic front-runners,” he says. “Your airtime just disappeared.”

Coverage of the inquiry’s early stages has prompted several TV news mainstays to shake up their routines. Lester Holt wrapped the Thursday-night broadcast of “NBC Nightly News” with a commentary on the situation: “If history is any guide, this will only get uglier,” he warned. Two days earlier, Bret Baier preempted Fox News Channel’s mainstay “The Five” to continue coverage after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the start of the impeachment inquiry. Fox News intends to assign at least one reporter to cover the matter on a full-time basis, says Bryan Boughton, the network’s senior vice president and Washington bureau chief. That person will work with a team of anchors and producers covering the White House, Capitol Hill and intelligence, among other beats.

Leaders at several news organizations maintain they will cover all kinds of news, not just a single story. “We remain committed to covering the political season,” says Christopher Isham, vice president and Washington bureau chief for CBS News, just after wrapping a conference call among staffers to discuss impeachment inquiry coverage. CNN’s Feist says the network has staffed accordingly, so it has resources for all. Fox News’ Boughton says he needs reporters like Peter Doocy to stay on the campaign trail, in part to ask questions of candidates as new developments unfold in Washington. “This isn’t a story that’s covered only from the halls of Congress or 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” notes Strickland.

The networks have good reason to chase this story to its end. National TV spending in the news genre has increased 30% since 2015, according to the Video Advertising Bureau, a trade organization representing the TV networks, rising to about $7.38 billion from about $5.68 billion. What’s more, politically charged news events, such as the recent hearing involving accusations levied against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, bring in audiences on par with those for top sports broadcasts, according to the group’s research. Others may hope to harness interest in the story to funnel views to new streaming-video ventures. Ken Stickland, NBC News vice president and Washington bureau chief, notes the unit’s new live-streaming outlet, NBC News Now, and Snapchat program “Stay Tuned” will contribute to coverage.

Some outlets may feel pressure to devote more personnel to the impeachment story, should it widen. “There are a lot of the political staff out on the road to cover candidates and primaries heading into late fall. Depending on what happen to this query, they are going to have to redeploy those people,” suggests Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and a former senior vice president of specials at NBC News. “It will be a sea change in how they are going to have to operate.”

Should the inquiry process broaden, so too will chances for on-air personnel to make a mark. Top legal correspondents like ABC News’ Dan Abrams, MSNBC’s Ari Melber, NBC News’ Pete Williams and CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin, already in high demand, could be pressed into even greater service. Others will get a spotlight too. “Behind the cavalry of anchors will be an army of analysts,” says Sesno.

And Fox News could continue to land most of President Trump’s TV interviews, generating plenty of publicity. “We are going to fight for the interviews on both sides of this story,” says Boughton.

A call to examine the possibility of impeachment has also emboldened some of the networks. CNN last week flashed a “Facts First” graphic while President Trump spoke in public — a clear attempt to assert proven statements in real time as a commander-in-chief known for prevaricating held forth. MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace cut into televised Trump remarks. “We hate to do this, really,” the anchor said during a Sept. 25 broadcast. “But the president isn’t telling the truth.” Tapper told CNN viewers something similar last week after a Trump hit.

“When we have our facts in this case, we’ll make sure we share them with our viewers and our readers online,” says CNN’s Feist. Others suggest a need for caution in the process. CBS News always vets the information it presents, but “you’ve got to be careful and fully accurate, and I’m not convinced that’s real wise to try to do it in real time,” says CBS News’ Isham.

With a big story and big money at stake, there will be no shortage of issues with which the networks will wrestle. “These are not easy problems to solve,” notes Hoftra’s Lukasiewicz. “Particularly on live television.”

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